Anime and manga are some of Japan’s biggest contributions to overseas popular culture, but the light novel, a work of prose fiction with some manga-style Illustrations, has become a fast-growing category in North America.
The term light novel is a Japanese-English phrase meant to describe light entertainment. In Japan, light novels are a major publishing category in their own right, with some series like Overlord and RE:Zero selling between 600,000 to 800,000 copies in a year in Japan alone. Light novels have also been popular sources for animated show content, partly because a serialized light novel can generate a greater volume of story content and prove its popularity with fans faster than weekly or monthly serialized manga.
While light novels are not a major focus in the North American manga market, the category continues to attract readers as more manga publishers add prose novel offerings to their lists. In recent years, as more anime adaptations of light novels debut, awareness of translated light novels has grown. To meet this increased demand, publishers are exploring the novel-publishing side of the translated Japanese content business.
“Fundamentally, we see the success of light novels in the English language as helping to open up the appetite for more diverse Japanese content in translation,” said Yen Press publisher and managing director of content Kurt Hassler. “As that market grows, it allows us to expand beyond just light novels, such as the novels of Tomihiko Morimi [Penguin Highway and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, both adapted as feature-length animated films], and Keigo Higashino’s The Miracles of the Namiya General Store, coming this fall.”
Yen Press, a joint venture between Hachette and Japanese publisher Kadokawa, remains the leader in this publishing space with its Yen On light novel imprint and its partnership with Kadokawa, a leading light novel publisher in Japan. Other publishers adding light novel titles to their publishing mix include Seven Seas, Viz Media, Vertical Inc., One Peace Books, J-Novel Club, Cross Infinite Worlds, Sol Press and even online book retailer BookWalker (a unit of Kadokawa), who are publishing more light novels in English than ever.
Light novel authors and artists are also starting to make their way to overseas anime conventions for guest appearances. Among them are such creators as Kumo Kagyu, author of Goblin Slayer, a guest at last year's Anime Expo; and Fujino Omori, the author of Is It Wrong to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?, who will be a featured guest at Anime Expo 2019 in Los Angeles.
At first the category encountered shelving problems. Should the books be shelved with young adult novels? Or with manga, since many popular light novels have also been adapted into manga and anime series? It seems like a little bit of both works just fine, with most light novels finding their way into the manga section and occasionally shelved in the genre prose sections, such as sci-fi, romance, or horror.
“Bookstores and libraries are familiar enough with light novels to the point where they are effectively reaching customers,” said Hassler. “We’re gratified to see light novels regularly appearing not only at the top of the BookScan Fantasy and Science Fiction bestseller lists but increasingly broken out into their own categories on bookstore and library shelves.”
Lianne Sentar, marketing manager for Seven Seas Entertainment and a light novel author in her own right (Tokyo Demons) said, “It’s possible to reach outside the typical manga audience (or even just the typical light novel audience) to sell some of these novels. They’re still mostly just grouped in with manga. And that’s fine, since the manga business is doing great.”
Light novels published in North America offer fantasy-adventure stories, slice-of-life, comedic, romantic, suspense and dramatic stories. For example, Yoru Sumino’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas sounds like a zombie story but it is actually the touching tale of a teen loner and a popular girl who secretly has a terminal illness.
Other light novels offer side stories based on popular manga and anime series, such as Attack on Titan: Lost Girls by Hiroshi Seko (Vertical), and Neon Genesis Evangelion: ANIMA by Ikuto Yamashita (Seven Seas), an alternate ending to the much-talked about anime series now airing on Netflix. There’s also My Hero Academia: School Briefs by Anri Yoshi, based on the wildly popular teen superhero characters from the manga series created by Kohei Horikoshi; and Naruto light novels by Masashi Kishimoto and Akira Higashiyama (Viz Media), based on the characters first introduced in the long-running Shonen Jump manga series.
Yen Press’ JY Kids imprint is also adding novels to their lists with Little Witch Academia: The Nonsensical Witch and the Country of the Fairies. “We are extremely excited about it,” said JuYoun Lee, deputy publisher and editor-in-chief, Yen Press and JY Kids. “So as long as we think it’s a great read for kids, there’s no limit to what we will add to our line.”
One popular genre in the light novel category is isekai or “different world” stories, where an ordinary person is transported from modern city life to a world of fantastical adventure. One Peace Books publisher Robert McGuire said, “there seems to be no stopping the isekai explosion, which has been steadily growing, and growing in the last few years.”
Sometimes that other world of an isekai story is a virtual world, like an online multi-player game, as in the popular Sword Art Online series or Overlord, both published by Yen Press’ Yen On imprint. Other times, the other world is a medieval Dungeons and Dragons-like setting, and the modern person is reincarnated as magical being, animal or even an object. In Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon, a beleaguered office worker is reborn as a vending machine that is carried around a fantasy world by a buxom female elf.
Hassler said growing popularity of light novels has revealed a real demand for books in translation in the North American market. “Initially interest and demand in light novels may have been driven by the affiliations with manga or anime,” Hassler explains. “Those ties continue, but what stands out is great storytelling and engaging characters, and those transcend a single genre.”